By Anthony Lane
December 11, 2017 Issue
Having once attended a stage production of “Singin’ in the Rain” at which the people in the front rows were issued with waterproofs during the interval, ahead of the title number, I was ready for whatever “The Shape of Water” could throw at me. A seat at the back seemed well advised. Guillermo del Toro’s new film is his wettest by far, notwithstanding the blood and other secretions that soaked through “Crimson Peak” (2015). Even the opening credits are drenched; we are ushered down what appears to be an undersea hallway, through a door, and into an apartment, where chairs and tables float in a drifting dance. Not since Alice filled a room with tears has inundation felt like such a wonder.
The heroine of the latest movie is Eliza (Sally Hawkins). She lives alone in Baltimore, a lowly figure awaiting change, although, like her namesake in “Pygmalion” and “My Fair Lady,” she hasn’t a clue what’s coming. But Eliza Doolittle acquired a new voice, whereas this Eliza cannot speak at all. She gets by on sign language (clarified by yellow subtitles), a genial courtesy, and a habitual rhythm to her life: a bath, a shoeshine, a bus trip, and a hard night’s toil as a cleaner at a scientific facility. Her best—indeed her only—friends are Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who polishes and scrubs alongside her, and Giles (Richard Jenkins), a toupee-topped bachelor who labors, with scant reward, as a commercial illustrator. His home, liberally strewn with cats, is next to Eliza’s. He likes to serve her Key-lime pie, which gives her a lizard-green tongue.
No date is provided, though “The Story of Ruth” (1960) is playing at the Orpheum cinema below Eliza’s apartment, and “Mister Ed,” which premièred the following year, is on TV. In short, the Cold War is at its frosty height, which is why “the most sensitive asset ever to be housed in this facility” arrives at Eliza’s workplace. Not an atomic bomb but something rarer still: a singular being who can breathe both underwater and, less happily, in air. He might be useful in space, the race for which has grown rabid. He has arms and legs and, unlike a merman, no tail. He also has squamous dark skin, like a toad crossed with a snake. (Somewhere, under the makeup, is the actor Doug Jones.) His eyelids bat horizontally, while a proud ruff of what may be gills palpates around his neck. He was found in a South American river, where the locals believed him to be a god. Now he is kept in a tank, swimming freely until he bites someone’s fingers off, after which he is tethered with an iron collar and chains. He is inspected, with fascination, by a scientist named Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg); chastised with an electric cattle prod by Strickland (Michael Shannon), the head of security; and adored by Eliza.
We have met this being (or a close relation of his) before, in his natural habitat. Anyone who knows “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954) will recall the Amazonian beast, armed with a similar crest and claws, who wrought mayhem on an intrusive expedition and, like King Kong, bore an American woman to his lair. Sadly, it was clear that their relationship was going nowhere beyond a murky grotto, whereas Eliza considers her Creature to be her dream man—or, at least, her dream aquatic biped. She brings him hard-boiled eggs for lunch, which he devours as avidly as Cool Hand Luke, and then teaches him how to sign “egg” and other words: a dazzling device on del Toro’s part, whereby Eliza’s condition, far from being a handicap, eases the entente between her and the prisoner, while confirming his intelligence. (In Strickland’s view, he is mindless. That makes it simpler to torture the poor thing.) The Creature also has a heart, though heaven knows what purls within its chambers; when Eliza bends down and listens to his chest, we hear the soft crash of waves.
For much of the movie, of course, he remains in captivity. Scientists, according to Strickland, “fall in love with their playthings”—shades of “Pygmalion” again—and we learn that, while the top brass tire of the Creature and ask that he be euthanized and cut up, Hoffstetler has clandestine motives for keeping him alive. As for the daring Eliza, she harbors thoughts of engineering his escape. Meanwhile, she must do what she can to school and to bewitch her unlikely beau, and that includes dancing in front of him when she is meant to be mopping the floor, using a broom for a partner. The reference is to Fred Astaire, who did the same with a hat rack, in “Royal Wedding” (1951)—part of a chorus of echoes that resound throughout. Giles has one of those televisions which seem eternally tuned to old movies: “Time for Alice Faye,” he says, whom we see crooning “You’ll Never Know,” the heartbreaker from “Hello Frisco, Hello” (1943) that won an Oscar for Best Song. Other highlights include a fruit-laden Carmen Miranda, in “That Night in Rio” (1941), and a scene in which Eliza smuggles in a portable record player and treats the Creature to a suave burst of Glenn Miller and “I Know Why,” as if to show the beast that, despite appearances, there is something to be said for Homo sapiens. A soiled and savage species, we can still make music when we try.
So what if “The Shape of Water” is flooded with other films? What matters is not that del Toro is a fanatical scholar of his medium but that, as we sensed in the grave reveries of “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006), he understands how fantasy invades and invests our waking lives. That was equally true of Dennis Potter, the creator of “Pennies from Heaven” and “The Singing Detective,” who I suspect would have warmed to this movie, and especially to the sight of Eliza, suddenly spirited from her kitchen table onto a monochrome dance floor. There, draped in a feathery gown, she sways back and forth, to the strains of an orchestra, in the arms of the Creature—her private Fred Astaire, with scales instead of white tie and tails. None of this would cohere, as an imaginative escapade, without Sally Hawkins. At the start, I worried that the film might prove merely winsome, like a Maryland “Amélie,” but Hawkins makes it taut and fierce. “All that I am, all that I have ever been, brought me here to him,” Eliza says—or signs—of the Creature, and that yearning feels as urgent as a news flash. Neither bullies nor bogeymen frighten Eliza. Nor does sex.
“Cornflakes were invented to prevent masturbation,” Giles says. After a pause, he adds, “Didn’t work.” It certainly doesn’t for Eliza, whom we witness eating a bowl of cornflakes and masturbating (though, wisely, not at the same time), thus giving fresh impetus to the Kellogg’s slogan, introduced in 1958, “The best to you each morning.” Needless to say, her pleasure is water-based—in the bath, every day, as regular as clockwork, with an egg timer placed nearby to hurry her along. Later, she finds a less solitary joy, of which I will say little, save that the Creature, when aroused in return, flickers with sparks and trails of luminescence, as if his body were a city at night. What del Toro sees is that lore and legend, though often dramatized for children, are rich in adult desires. The lust that is, of necessity, thwarted and dammed in Disney productions of “Beauty and the Beast” is released, and allowed to flow at will, through the fable of Eliza and the Creature. So grimly accustomed are we to sexual violence onscreen that to see sex flourish as a rebuke to violence and a remedy for loneliness, which is what “The Shape of Water” provides, is a heady and uplifting surprise.
Having watched this movie twice, I still can’t define it. Maybe I need another plunge. Polonius, presenting the players to Hamlet, lauds their prowess at “tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited,” and del Toro, no less eager to mix his modes, delivers a horror-monster-musical-jailbreak-period-spy-romance. It comes garnished with shady Russians, a shot of racial politics (Strickland talks to Zelda about “your people,” meaning African-Americans), puddles of blood, and a healthy feminist impatience with men who either overstep the mark or, like Zelda’s husband, sit on their butts and do zilch. Octavia Spencer, as is her wont, grounds the action in common sense—no actor raises a more skeptical eyebrow—and in the common decency that attends it. Michael Shannon, cracking candy between his teeth, is as mean as sin, though he might have been meaner still if some of his scenes had been condensed, while Richard Jenkins brings us a gentle soul who, until recently, feared that his time had come and gone. Not so. “I’m going to be synchronizing our watches, just like they do in the movies!” he says, at a crucial moment. His time is now.
The strangest thing about “The Shape of Water,” which should be one almighty mess, is that it succeeds. The streams of story converge, and, as in any good fairy tale, that which is deemed ugly and unworthy, by a myopic world, is revealed to be a pearl beyond price. “The thing we keep in there is an affront,” Strickland says, referring to what lurks in the tank. When Giles first encounters the Creature, however, he doesn’t flinch. He gazes, with the practiced eye of an artist, and with the hunger of somebody starved of love, and then declares, “He’s so beautiful.” A poem unlimited, indeed. ♦